A former Cabinet Minister suggested recently that when partisan
politics comes in contact with any issue, it becomes distorted. I thought of the
comment’s applicability to the current furor about bullying in the Ball Liberal
Caucus, especially the case of Cathy Bennett. Is politics a motivator in how it
is being disclosed? How pervasive is the problem? Is it endemic to political
office anyway? Who must take responsibility? What “fixes” if any are required?
true, what fixes are required, that is to say what effect should the outcome
have on public policies?
describe it. Now that vile behaviours have joined the day-to-day experiences of
Ministers and MHAs, and are increasingly part of the political lexicon, commentators
and the public have an obligation to include them in debate — as fraught with
risk as such a polarizing issue may seem.
|Former Finance Minister, Cathy Bennett (Photo Credit: CBC)|
should be accepted on their face. Such a position underscores the complexity of
the matter for sure, but the suggestion is contrary to how our legal system works
and to notions of fairness, too, which affords the presumption of innocence of
alleged misbehavers until proven guilty.
sometimes aggressive — arena of politics. Is this not context for oxymoron? Isn’t
this the place where this admonition is most often invoked: if you can’t take
the heat get out of the kitchen? Of course, those who have experienced or even have
simply studied bullying would certainly not think the issue nearly so simple.
Indeed, no one should.
office —“bully pulpit”, the word bully
once meaning “superb” or “wonderful” — should now share an association with
violence of the nastiest kind.
is, rightfully, little tolerance for the crude and the unruly. Sufferers are
all too aware that bullying is as insidious as it is cruel, hurtful and
legislatures, whether the most senior perpetrators offer a sneer, utter a
disparaging remark or exhibit the equivalent in body language, people are made
to fearful and unwell. Unhealthy working environments result, and productivity
pounding from a good many miscreants before she went public with her experience.
It took a lot of guts to stand up and be an accuser, especially when tolerance
for many types of behaviours in the political sphere will often default along
partisan lines. There is an even more challenging problem, however. It is in
the nature of bullying that it is not so easy to point a finger at one specific
person or to a single comment or event.
her case, “the bullying she experienced was often very sophisticated and
nuanced, and pointed more to a cultural problem than specific earth-shattering
that tricky, embarrassing and hurtful place don’t come forward and don’t file
formal written complaints.
that Bennett has essentially put the Government on trial, such is the extreme
level of bullying she experienced. Other MHAs have now joined her in bullying’s
contaminated with behaviours from “bullying” to “isolation”. She invokes the
term “mild gaslighting” (whose definition I had to look up) as well as
“intimidation”. Bennett states that she experienced “real fear”.
environment, but they assume an even greater urgency when the highest levels of
government stand accused.
notwithstanding ostensibly legitimate personal reasons, it seems to be in the
public interest, if not her own, to have them investigated. Without
investigation and an independent assessment of their veracity, taking into consideration,
as she states, the absence of “specific earth-shattering examples” of the
torments, how are we to know her allegations are not, at least in part, politically
impacts will bristle at the suggestion of independent examination, while others
will suggest that the victims just need to be tougher. The fact that we all
know that bullying is a huge problem on school playgrounds, in businesses and
in government offices suggests that when the same behaviours are associated
with high office, the accusations present an opportunity for even the more obscure
aspects of bullying to be held up to the light. And for that reason, I want to take
the conversation along a slight detour.
bullying — is endemic.
People feel very strongly about political decisions, whether they are fighting over
money to fill potholes or for a school whose repair has long been neglected.
Indeed, public policy debates of all kinds are often so argumentative that it
is very easy to imply that one or more actors have engaged in bullying. Those
conversations occur all the time in Cabinet, Caucus, the House of Assembly, and
in various public forums.
isn’t just about aggressive and heated argument.
it is about power — attaining it and keeping it. People will use a lot of
energy, ingenuity and even the tools of backstabbing and innuendo (and a whole
lot more) to stay on top. To that
extent, at least, the problem is cultural or worse. It maybe the way we are
it may seem unfair to even raise the prospect that Ms. Bennett is using the
advantages afforded by the “bully pulpit” to skewer through innuendo and
vagueness, we know that she is refused complete validation. Even inside the
Caucus occupied by her colleagues, including the Minister Responsible for the Status
of Women, there are different interpretations of what occurred.
against Eddie Joyce. Two deny having experienced the intimidation and bullying
“alluded to” by Bennett, according to the CBC.
table and in caucus. I have not seen [that], nor have I experienced [it].”
Responsible for the Status of Women, said: “Did I feel it was bullying,
intimidation to me? No. But every person’s different in how they interpret
things, aren’t they?”
bullying, yet the behaviours were pervasive, according to Bennett.
behaviours, but judged “it” to be not bullying or intimidation. The “it”, she
asserts, is a matter of interpretation — essentially a question of how
differences are perceived, suggesting that one person’s “bully” is another’s
always present when Bennett suffered insults or innuendo. But their comments
confirm how difficult it may be for Ms. Bennett to be believed. Each is entitled
to their own appraisal by proximity to the people and the place at issue but we
also know that, apart from perspective, they have personal and partisan
self-interests to offer, too. We cannot give more weight to them than to former
bullying is “cultural” would have one believe that at least some of the men and
women who have served in politics over the years were poorly treated within
pause for reflection on an earlier time in politics. Though I was never a Member
of either Cabinet or Caucus, I typically witnessed an immense amount of camaraderie
and mutual respect among Members and Ministers. For all the talk of politics
being a blood sport, if you talk with (male) Ministers and MHAs who have served
in the past, and other public servants who witnessed their behaviour, you will
find agreement that disrespect — or worse, “bullying” — is not something to
which they were exposed. Admittedly, I do wonder if the female Members would be
unanimous with the males in this assertion, though most former Caucuses
contained far fewer than presently.
different. Her narrative suggests that she operated within a toxic cauldron of
misbehaviour, isolation, bile, and boorishness. Bennett only served in one
Government: that of Premier Ball.
bullying is coincident with the timing and the grievances of her colleagues and,
indeed, whether it has any relationship with the forthcoming Liberal Party’s
AGM on June 15. Likely the next part of this narrative will confirm that the latter
concern is unwarranted and that it is simply borne out of the persistent search
for linkages that occupy the mindset of those who constantly assess the
political business – or it could simply be pettiness.
that are opaque. It is that a great deal of politics is practiced in a very public
way. This is, in fact, the part of the narrative that unreservedly validates Bennett’s
claims. Her loss of political power, upon leaving the Ball Cabinet, involved matters
played out quite publicly.
measures and the poorly-conceived cuts it contained, especially to the library
system, caused a public outcry so vociferous that many turned on their local MHAs.
(I have characterized her Budget far differently, but that is another story.) Some
of them, in turn, invoked the same wrath towards Bennett, and it is common
knowledge that she received no support from Premier Ball, though he was her co-architect
in the Budget’s design.
types of bullying Bennett says she endured) from the normal consultation
processes in which his Office engaged – which, in the case of the Finance
Department, are frequent. This fact was well known throughout the Government
and within the small circle of Ministers and MHAs. (I wrote about it several
times on this Blog and wondered why she chose to stay in Cabinet under the
circumstances.) This inability to be either decisive or astute, however, is no basis whatever for meting out or accepting abuse.
Bennett effectively constituted the perfect environment for bullying to occur. The
Minister’s open isolation constituted a signal, sent wittingly or otherwise, to
those with a penchant for such behaviours that she was fair game.
and demanded that the behaviours stop. They were competitors before, both
having competed for the Liberal Leadership. Now they were arch enemies; Ball
holding all the cards. As Premier he ought to have understood that anything
except an atmosphere of mutual respect would be corrosive and destructive. Members
of his Caucus, as in any business or organization, needed his enforced example —
his respectful leadership — to ensure a constructive, respectful and collegial
personal relationship broke down, which he ought to have done; else she should
have quit his Cabinet. Such a choice would not have saved her from the worst
behaviours exhibited on social media, but this kind of decision – from either
party – constitutes an integral component of working in or managing people in a
stressful, rough-and-tumble working environment.
incomplete for the purposes of altering public policy. The question remains: does
Cathy Bennett’s story meet a standard of proof that the problem is so pervasive
that new rules are needed to govern the behaviours of the elected, and that a
new adjudication mechanism is required, too?
characterizations of her own experience seem to exceed the limited purpose of
supporting complaints made by Sherry Gambin-Walsh and Tracey Perry. In the
crosshairs is Premier Ball who, few would disagree, Bennett — in the vernacular
of the street — throws under the bus.
status of villain in such circumstances?
who can argue that she has rightfully saddled him with responsibility not just for
failing to provide leadership at its most basic level and at a critical time but,
in fact, for enabling some of the very worst behaviours she describes?
Administration as a place of dysfunction. Elements of the Sherry Gambin-Walsh
complaint, in which the Leader of the Opposition — not the Premier — is the
(real) whistleblower for the Liberal Minister, is confirmation that Dwight Ball
is oblivious not just to the existential economic problems facing the province,
but to important and destructive events going on around him.
historically successive failures of leadership at the highest level.
Doubtlessly, other Liberal and Tory Administrations have been populated by
their share of boors, but unless new information is uncovered, we can assume
that the most egregious problem of bullying is a toxic product of this largely
that govern behaviour among the elected? I don’t think so. I do not think the
case has been made that we have to alter the way politics is played, or that
there is any need to inhibit politics as a forum where passions are on display
and social, economic and political priorities are debated.
would quickly offer two thoughts, in addition to the repeated assertion that
the Government might operate more effectively on several different levels if
this Premier was told to go:
The idea of a male adjudicator, including the Commissioner
of Legislative Standards, adjudicating issues of bullying made by women only
underscores how misunderstood the issue is by the Premier. Tracey Perry’s
assertion that complaints should be handled “completely independent of
government” misses the point, too. At minimum, such issues should be heard by a
tribunal having cross-gender representation.
What better place than the Legislature, which is
first and foremost where laws are made, to debate public policies? The House of
Assembly, for years, has been underutilized; the need to vote supplies its
primary purpose. This limited role only perpetuates the notion of politics as a
vehicle to secure each district’s piece of the pie. Political passions, in a
province with so many problems including deficient institutions, should be
raised in pursuit of more enduring outcomes. Debates about the pervasive
problem of bullying are long overdue. Cathy Bennett, Sherry Gambin-Walsh and
Tracey Perry could lead off.
require the miscreants to be present, if not to listen. And when Members are
tired of this particular issue, the Speaker could select a few more from the
Democracy Cookbook edited by Alex Marland and Lisa Moore, many of which
underscore the dearth of considered public policy debate in this province. That
the House of Assembly is closed for much of the year constitutes all the
evidence needed to confirm that we have a fundamental inability to recognize
even our most protracted problems.
their minds, rather than their mouths or some other body part. The toxic
atmosphere inside Cabinet and Caucus illuminates the bullying issue, but it
confirms the larger problem too.
just public policy but also the fundamental relationships between elected
this Premier should go.